Wednesday, October 28, 2009

How to choose your religion scientifically.

This is from several places, via OnePissedOffVet. Go there and look at all the links...

Saturday, October 10, 2009

"Good science" vs. "Bad science"

I have written before about the scientific method, but I’ll give a quick little summary here, for all you humanities majors out there.

You start with a set of what should be undisputable facts or observations. “See, that big barn over there on my neighbor’s property? It’s red. Right?” It’s something that everyone can, or should be able to, readily agree to. Then you start asking, “Well, how did it come to be red?” You might start making a hypothesis that explains your questions about whatever it is that you have observed. “See that guy over there? He’s my neighbor. It’s his barn. He probably just got finished painting it that color.” Of course, you don’t know for certain that your neighbor just painted the barn. However, there are all sorts of clues that your supposition might be a true one. That’s your theory. You just have to go about figuring out if your theory is valid or not, such that other people armed with the same starting point and facts as you will come up with the same conclusion. You are out to give validity to your theory.

The reason I said “give validity to” instead of “proving” is that the term “proof” implies absolute certainty in something. Many times in science, there will never be 100% certainty of something. However, if you can get your theory in good enough shape that your peers agree with your conclusion and no one can really come up with either 1) major points your theory doesn’t address or ) a better alternative, then people start using the word “proof.”

Anyway, to get back to my red barn analogy… There may be a number of ways you might go about trying to figure out if your neighbor painted his barn red. For instance, you could ask him. If he says “Yes, I did. Do you have a problem with that?”, then your work is pretty much at an end. Unless, of course, someone calls your neighbor a liar or, even better, comes up and declares, “No, I painted the barn! Don’t listen to that man!” Then you are kind of stuck. You now have two competing conclusions that cannot simultaneously both be true. You now need some additional input about why your original theory might be the correct one.

Say you observe that your neighbor is holding an open can of red paint. Additionally, he is also holding a paint brush full of wet red paint, his pants and shirt are all covered in very wet paint, and there are red footprints leading from the barn directly to where he is standing. This is getting very close to becoming your “proof.” You have convinced yourself, your wife and anyone else who will listen. However, those people may not actually know anything about painting. Or barns. Or perhaps they just don’t really care one way or the other.

Therefore, the next thing you need to do is get your peers (those who DO care about painting, barns and painting barns red) to agree with your conclusions about why that barn is red. You may go speak at a conference specializing in barn construction and circulate a paper you wrote on the subject of your neighbor and his barn. You might write an article for “Barns Monthly” magazine and “The Journal of National Association of Animal Husbandry Buildings”. Those, of course, are the most widely read publications for those who care about such things. Your peers read your article and most come to an agreement that, yes, you are correct in your starting point (it is indeed a barn and it is red) and how it got that way. Yes! You have triumphed! You are the King of the World! Fame and a lucrative speaking career beckon.

However, the next month, you might receive a letter from one of your rivals. He puts forward an alternative hypothesis. “No, the barn is red because the local lumber company, five miles down the road from your neighbor’s barn, is selling barn siding that is already painted red. Your neighbor bought his lumber there. I have a copy of his receipt.”

Your first reaction is, of course, “Oh, crap!” Your finely crafted case about how your neighbor’s barn came to be red is about to come crashing down around your ears. Utter humiliation awaits. Your wife isn’t speaking to you and your dog bit your hand when you tried to pet him. You must do something to rectify this terrible situation. Immediately, if not sooner.

So, it appears obvious that your theory needs to evolve to take these new facts, which are not really open to dispute (sale on red lumber, copy of the sales receipt) into account. Aha! You have it! Yes, your neighbor bought lumber already painted red, but he didn’t use it to build his barn! He used it to build a garage instead! Your original hypothesis is still sound! How else do you explain the wet, red paintbrush, the open can of paint and the footprints?

And so it goes. The reason I went on at such length about such a seemingly trivial and/or stupid scenario is that I wanted to put what really happens during the scientific method into a concept that non-scientists could easily understand. Even with its dramatic oversimplifications and stupid analogies, the scenario above gives an approximation about how the scientific method actually works. To repeat, this is how my “good science” of my title works. It doesn’t matter what kind of answer you get. It’s the process that matters! Start with facts. Make a hypothesis that fits the facts and answers all open questions. Peer reviews. Continually adjust your hypothesis whenever new facts come to light or when someone points out where your logic is not sound.

Here are the points I want to highlight. There are rarely absolute proofs to anything. You might have a model of understanding that comes very, very close to answering all the open questions about some phenomena. Maybe not all questions, but your theory works very well. Or maybe, your theory does indeed answer all open questions, until the day that someone either asks a new question that no one has ever thought of before, or perhaps some new facts or observations are uncovered that now cast some doubt on your hypothesis.

A very good and very understandable example of this is of Newtonian physics. You remember Sir Isaac Newton, don’t you? The chap who got bonked on the head with the apple? Described his theory of universal gravitation? One of the most influential scientists and mathematicians to have ever lived? Yeah, him. His theories worked incredibly well to describe how gravity affects our world. You could use it to set the elevation of your cannon so that your cannonball hits the enemy over across the valley. Terribly useful stuff. Newtonian physics ruled the day.

However, when one gets looking closer, it appears that Newtonian physics doesn’t exactly predict the motion really big things, like planets, when you start examining it in detail. Surprise! It turned out that Newtonian physics was only an approximation. It didn’t predict everything that it should. And the closer that people starting examining the facts and data, the more it appeared that there were some major shortcomings into his theories. Enter Einstein and the theory of relativity, and the floodgates were opened.

I don’t want to get into a history lesson about classical vs. modern physics. That would be pretty tedious. My point is that Newtonian physics was never The One True Answer. Oh, you got very good predictions about how everyday objects react. But it was never more than an approximation. At the scale we cared about, those approximations did not matter. You never saw the errors because they were so small. Now, mathematicians, astronomers, physicists and cosmologists are getting into some very, very strange and disturbing theories about the universe. They are nowhere near the classical Newtonian physics. However, Newtonian physics still predicts some things, like that apple or that cannon shot, extremely well. So, was Newton’s theory wrong? Or right?

I apologize about how long it has taken me to reach this point, but I am now getting to what I really wanted to discuss. This is what really upsets me when I hear religious fundamentalists or ideologue conservatives talk about something like evolution or global warming in absolute terms. They obviously do not understand the scientific method. They just do not. There are very, very few absolutes. Black/white answers are sometimes only aren’t possible; they are also a pipe dream. And something you may be absolutely certain about one day can crumble right before your eyes with the introduction of a new set of data. That does not mean you were totally incorrect! That just means you need to go back to the drawing board. Your theory may need just a tweak, or it may need to be totally scrapped. You don’t know until you start digging into it, armed with your newly acquired facts and data.

The one “criticism” that I hear about the theory of evolution is “It’s only a theory!” Of course it’s only a theory! Jeez. That’s a really, really dumb thing to say. So is the theory of gravity. Do you disagree that gravity exists? Of course not. But the explanation we currently have as to why gravity exists is incomplete. Those scientists and mathematicians who work out on the esoteric edges of their fields may feel they are getting close to having an answer (hint: it’s called M Theory and involves a universe made up of eleven dimensions), but they are not there yet. But that doesn’t mean that they don’t have a lot of the answers already worked out. “It’s only a theory!” is not a valid criticism! That’s how the process works! Anthropologists, geneticists and researchers in many other fields agree that evolution is a fact. They just cannot explain every aspect. There are still many unanswered questions. So what? That does not mean that the entire concept is wrong! It just means it is still a work in progress.

Another problem that seems to occur in today’s society is that we demand everything be “dumbed down” to the point that every single person feels that they must be able to understand something before they will admit it to be true. If they can’t understand it, then, by definition, it isn’t true. What hogwash. Experts in a field are experts for a reason; they know more than you do about something! That’s what makes them an expert! There is a reason it takes eight years plus to get through college and earn a Ph.D. in something. It’s complex! It’s difficult! Their conclusions do have more validity than yours do! You probably don’t know jack about the subject, if you really want to get to the heart of the matter.

Yet another problem is that many people seem to feel that they are free to disagree with a scientific conclusion if it doesn’t support their already set-in-concrete opinions. If science doesn’t come to the conclusion that they wanted it to, then it becomes “bad science.” The Earth’s climate is actually getting warmer, and the activities of mankind are a major contributing factor. The Earth is much, much older than 6000 years. Evolution in living things does indeed occur. Earth is not at the center of the universe, nor does the sun revolve around the Earth. On and on… Many people throughout history have taken a very dim view of scientific conclusions that are at odds with a position in which they have a vested interest (e.g., the Church, Galileo, and is the Earth at the center of the universe or not?). The scientific method does not care if you have just had the rug jerked out from beneath your feet. That's too bad, but that is your problem, not science's. Deal with it.

It does not matter to the scientific method what the answer turns out to be. You cannot dictate your preferred answers to the scientific method. That’s dishonest and manipulative. You must start with the question, make a hypothesis and then end up with a convincing answer! You cannot start with the answer first! Nor can you object to the facts and observations that the scientific method started from. The barn really is red. It is not green. To say otherwise is false and it makes the holder of such views look like an idiot. That is what bad science is; it is not science that doesn’t give you the answer you wanted.

In the last 25 years--but it has really picked up speed in the last 10 years--our society has devalued science and the answers it can provide. Sometimes we may not like the answer. That doesn’t mean science is somehow wrong or bad. It just means that we should probably either adjust our way of thinking or possibly do something to change the outcome that the scientific method is predicting. That might be anything from cutting the emissions of greenhouse gasses significantly to perhaps realizing that evolution is not necessarily in conflict with the existence of God.

What we have now is a society that values opinions more than answers reached by the scientific method. And, the current thinking goes, the more fervently you believe in something, the better chance it has of being true. This is not a good thing, to put it mildly. That is the way that civilizations collapse. They cannot cope with the reality that will ultimately come crashing down on their/our collective heads.

Photo from here.

Cross-posted at Barking Rabbits and MadMike'sAmerica.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

“If the Earth is only 6000 years old, then why…?” Question number 43.

I am continually amazed at the number of people who insist, for no other reason that the Bible implies that Adam showed up on the Earth about the same time it was created, that the Earth is relatively young. In fact, most fundamentalists insist they know the age of the Earth is approximately 6000 years old. Why do they know this? From Starryskies:

The Judeo-Christian belief that the Earth was 6000 years old is still argued by some fundamentalists though they are a tiny minority. They steadfastly base their beliefs on the fact that the Old Testament in their bible is an accurate and literal history of the world. This belief was given a boost in 1642 by John Lightfoot, a distinguished Greek scholar and Vice Chancellor of Cambridge University who got very specific and said that the moment of creation was 9:00 AM, September 17th, 3928 BC. It’s hazy just how he arrived at this figure but it had something to do with adding up all those "begats" in the ancestries of people mentioned.

And that is how fundamentalists are absolutely certain the Earth is 6000 years old. Because someone in the 17th century (which is nowhere near Biblical times) calculated the number of people “begat-ing” other people in the Book of Genesis and then did a little math. Genesis helpfully gives the age of the people involved (Enos lived to the ripe old age of 90, and apparently Kenan lived to be an astounding nine hundred and ten years old), so that M. Lightfoot could add up the numbers and come up with a number close to 6000 years. And that is reason enough, in logic of most fundamentalists, to disregard all scientific findings from a multitude of scientific fields that concludes the Earth is over a billion years old.

Here is the question I wanted to pose. I just felt like doing a little setup about where this premise of a 6000 year old Earth is actually coming from. This is a very easy-to-understand thought experiment that doesn’t even require any of that pesky scientific logic that fundamentalists look down their noses at. Look at the pictures that accompany this post. They show (in the following order) the surfaces of the Earth’s moon, the planet Mercury and Callisto, a moon of Jupiter. Each of these bodies inhabits a distinctly different area of our solar system. What is the obvious similarity between these bodies?

The answer is each of these bodies is heavily cratered. If you look closely, you can see areas of craters within other craters that are within even older craters. Each of these craters represents a huge impact from an incoming object that struck the surface of the moon/planet sometime in its distant past. Now, how many years might it have taken to have each of these bodies to be struck by so many objects that the craters cover every square mile of the moon’s/planet’s surface (that hasn’t been resurfaced by some geologic activity)? We can’t know for certain. But, for the sake of comparison, how many of these collisions do we see today? Well, we know of three such events since mankind has had the technology that would enable us to see them; Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 in July of 1994 and another comet or asteroid in July of 2009, both impacting the planet Jupiter and the Tunguska event in Russia in 1908. July seems to be a very bad month for Jupiter.

In the celestial, non-fundamentalist time frame, that is a very short slice of time. However, in the 6000 year fundamentalist time frame, 100 years is getting to be a significant percentage. Three known impacts per 100 years isn't that much, certainly not enough to account for the massive amount of cratering we see on a majority of the planets and moons that have surfaces that are not being continually eroded or refreshed. However, three known impacts per 100 years seems to indicate that there are still lots of objects out in our solar system, just waiting for their chance to plaster the planets and their moons. However, even at that rate of three or four impacts somewhere in our solar system every 25 years, that still would indicate that these bodies have been around a lot longer than 6000 years in order to build up the very impressive scar tissue indicative of small, large and huge impacts from comets, asteroids and meteors. 6000 years does not seem nearly enough time, especially since material such as the Bible itself does not mention anything about King David and his impressive army dodging incoming meteors. If the Bible is the only source of ancient history that can be trusted (apparently), then all those impacts from other-worldly intruders must have happened before mankind showed up and could see such events with our own eyes. Because, if those impacts happened, they surely would have been talked about somewhere in the Bible, correct?

Now, as an added argument, what is missing from the Earth that these other bodies have? The same craters; they are, for the most part, nowhere to be found on the surface of the Earth. There are a few exceptions, such as Meteor Crater in Arizona. So, what happened to the evidence of the rest of the impacts that the Earth must have sustained during its early life? They were obliterated due to natural erosion and constant resurfacing that the Earth’s surface continually undergoes. How long must that have taken, to get rid of all visual evidence of the craters that must have been here? Quite some time, given how “fresh” Meteor Crater appears to be. I suppose, if you do support the notion that God created the entire universe, that He also could have somehow “protected” the Earth from such impacts, such that there never were any craters, while our nearby Moon got continually pounded. But then, Meteor Crater and the Tunguska object become problematic. God apparently didn’t do a terribly thorough job of protecting the Earth.

(It occurs to me that someone, I suppose, could argue that The Great Flood wiped away all traces of meteor and comet impacts from the surface of the Earth. Fundamentalists use The Flood to explain quite a lot of things, such as why there are fossils of fishes and other sea creatures that are found high in the mountains, quite a distance away from any body of water. Given that leap, it's plausible that someone could make the same claim regarding the non-existence of impact craters on the Earth. However, there is still that pesky point that the Bible doesn't mention anything about these impacts. And, according to these 6000-year-old-Earthers, the Bible is the one and only source of true information.)

With this (hopefully) easy-to-understand thought experiment, it seems more than obvious that the solar system is much, much older than 6000 years.

So, my question to those believing that the Earth is around 6000 years old is the following. Why is someone in the 17th Century counting up the “begats” of all the Biblical characters and using their sometimes unbelievable ages to calculate the age of the Earth more compelling than using your eyes and your mind to come to an obvious and immediate conclusion that the age of our solar system, and therefore our own Earth, is very ancient? Please enlighten me. I am all ears.

Picture of the moon’s surface from

Picture of Jupiter’s moon, Callisto, from

Picture of Mercury from

Cross-posted at MadMike'sAmerica.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

How important is the human species, really?

This is a newly released photo of galaxy cluster Abell 370 taken by the Hubble Telescope. The Hubble Space Telescope is, at this point in time, one of the greatest achievements of human history. The science and technology behind this instrument is astounding, and that isn’t even saying anything about the discoveries that have been aided by the existence of the Hubble.

But that isn’t what I want to talk about here. I just want to speculate a bit about the role of human beings in the Grand Scheme of Things.

Take a close look at that photograph. Most of the objects captured in this extraordinary image are not stars. They are galaxies, similar to our own Milky Way. I would estimate there are anywhere from one hundred to three hundred galaxies show in that photo. That photo represents one very small fraction of the entire sky. There are literally billions of galaxies in the universe. Billions. In turn, each galaxy is made up of anywhere from as few as several million stars (such as globular clusters) to tens of billions of stars. It takes light about 150,000 years, traveling at 186,000 miles per second, to travel from one side of the rim of a typical galaxy like ours to the opposite side.

Now let's take a look at our smaller, more understandable solar system, where we are talking about a single star out of the literally trillions of stars that currently exist. It takes light around eight and one third minutes to travel the 93 million miles from our sun to the Earth. Probes sent to the outer planets, although they usually take a very circuitous route to take advantage of gravity assists, take years to get from Earth wherever they are going. This demonstrates that even our local neighborhood, which is a very tiny place indeed in the midst of all these billions of stars in the billions of galaxies, is a still incomprehensibly large.

Human beings cannot comprehend how large the universe really is. Astronomers and cosmologists really only understand it because they deal with that immensity every day of their lives. Everyone else deals with the universe on a scale that makes sense to them. Many Americans, for instance, do not seem to understand that there is an entire world of people and cultures that exist outside of their town, their state or their country. It’s no wonder that they cannot really grasp what the universe seems to be about.

Ancient cultures always put themselves at the center of the universe, because they had never experienced anything outside their culture. I do not want to get into what historically happens when cultures collide, or when one culture decides, for whatever reason, to pick up their stakes and move to an entirely new location. That is not the subject I want to explore here. My point is that the universe to ancient cultures was usually a very small place. To the inhabitants of Easter Island, the universe consisted of their island and the ocean. Native American cultures may have viewed their universe as a few hundred miles surrounding Chaco Canyon in what is now New Mexico. That was all they knew, so their customs and legends grew out of the belief that there was very little of interest beyond what they knew. “Here Be Dragons” was a warning that was placed on the white areas of maps.

I have taken a bit of time to set up my premise of this post. Most every culture in the history of mankind, it seems, has viewed itself as “God’s Chosen People.” These cultures had no reason to believe otherwise. Every culture seems to have had its own creation myth, to explain how the universe came into being. Part of this creation myth must also address how the People came into being. Some Native American cultures believed that they were descended from the beings who inhabited the underworld. Usually, the word that Native Americans used for themselves translated into something akin to “The People.” That meant, everyone else was not the part of tribe of true humans. They were “something else.” Only the People were The People.

Christianity seems to me to be no different. There is the creation myth; “God created the Heaven and the Earth.” There is the explanation of where humans beings came from; they are descended from Adam and Eve, who were themselves created directly by God. The ancient Jews became known to themselves as “God’s Chosen People.

The point that I am making about these religious views that people hold regarding themselves is that they invariably put those people at the center of the universe. They are the only thing that matter. God or other diety is intimately involved in the lives, beliefs, actions and traditions of the Chosen People. There is no detail too small in the lives of the Chosen People. If you did things that God disapproved of, or even thought “inappropriate thoughts”, then God would be mightly displeased and you put your immortal soul at risk about going to Heaven or going to sit with your elders in the sky when you die.

Take a look at that picture again, and think about the immensity that we are talking about. Billions of galaxies, each with billions of stars, seperated by distances so vast that light takes millions of years to travel between them. If God created the Heaven and the Earth, then He created all of this.

My question is, if humans are the center of God’s attention, then what is the rest of the universe for? In the “big picture” scheme of things, it appears to me that humans are totally inconsequential. Galaxies gobble up other galaxies. Monstrous black holes suck up everything, including light, that comes within their event horizon. Suns explode in supernovas, taking out everything in the neighborhood. Our own sun, which seems to benign and has been the focus of so many religions in the history of mankind, is destined for this very fate. Earth will not survive this explosion.

Mankind is the center of God’s attention, such that He cares about whether you believe in Him or not? Or whether you think “impure thoughts?” He cares about whether or not someone engaged in extramartial sex? He cares about whether or not someone is gay, or that gay people might be allowed to be married to each other? I have heard, on a number of occasions, the basketball teams at Christian schools pray before every game, praying that playing the game of basketball “glorifies God.” I am sorry, but I fail to see how God could possibly be interested in such trivialities by a very small group of people on a tiny part of a tiny planet in a remote part of the Milky Way galaxy.

I have used this argument before, and I was accused of “not having an imagination.” Perhaps. But perhaps all the believers of God or whatever other diety they pray to suffer from microscopic vision, such that they cannot change their point of view that puts them at the center of the universe. To me, that is what happens when you teach a child, as soon as they are old enough to comprehend spoken language, that we ARE at the center of the universe and God DOES take microscopic interest in our daily lives.

If humans are indeed the center of God’s attention, then it seems that, to me, God is terribly extravegant and a very large showoff. Why wouldn’t the Earth be a big flat plane, just as people without science always envisioned it to be? That certainly would have been more focused.

I believe that the universe is a vast, mysterious and wonderous place. The things that science has discovered, and are continually discovering, about the place we inhabit are truly mindbending. I do not need an explanation that includes God to understand how amazing and wonderful it is that we even exist.

Monday, September 7, 2009

On Faith.

When I used to ask questions regarding religion when I was a kid, the answers I usually got were “God works in mysterious ways”, “We weren’t meant to understand” and “You just have to have Faith.” Even the 11 year old I was on the time thought answers like these were cop outs. They didn’t answer any questions. They just deflected them, such that answers weren’t necessary.

Faith. I really hate that one. To me, that means you have to believe, and believe fervently, without the support of any facts or observable evidence. We are supposed to turn off our logical, fact based thought processes and just accept what is written in some book whose origins are pretty obscure at best that was written anywhere from 1800 to 2500 years ago. You know, back before humans had the basics of scientific understanding about the universe we live in. Oh, we were actually pretty good at math back then. The stone monuments and calendars we have left from that period demonstrate that. But scientific knowledge? No, we did not have that.

Yet, I am being asked to believe, to have “faith”, in a supernatural being that ancient people believed in before people even understood that the Earth was a sphere and the miniscule role it plays in the universe. I am expected to accept this without question. Additionally, I am supposed to choose this specific religion, again without facts, over the myriad of other religions that currently exist today. This one here (let’s just call it “Christianity” for the sake of discussion) is The One Truth, and all those over there (say, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, and even variants, both greater and lesser, of Christianity itself) are “false” religions.

God really expects us to make that choice on Faith alone, without any supporting evidence? That’s a pretty insane expectation, if He knows anything about human beings. Which, given that He made us in His own image and all that, He really should have known how this would all turn out.

God is omnipresent and omniscient, yet He couldn’t see what a crummy system this was and that mankind would wage neverending wars in His name over which religion that everyone is supposed to take on Faith alone?

And guess what? There’s a bonus question! If you get your answer wrong, the one that was based solely on Faith without any supporting evidence, you are an infidel and destined to go to Hell for all eternity! And it doesn’t matter if you were brought up in the middle of Pakistan, where the chances of you learning about Christianity in a positive light are as near to zero as things are ever going to get. You are damned and will suffer eternal torment because you never even had a chance.

This sounds so much like a rigged carnival game, where you get sucked in by slick barkers into investing more and more money, only to lose it all in the end. It would be funny if it weren’t all so sad. This is how I see the world’s societies today. Look at all the wasted human lives and incredible suffering that has been self-inflicted, all in the name of this or that religion. Now, I am not saying that, without religion, life on Earth would somehow become a paradise. It wouldn’t. Human beings are stupid, mean, territorial creatures that would find plenty of other reasons to kill and impoverish our fellow humans without bringing our version of mythology into the picture. But, throughout the centuries, stop and take a minute to reflect on all the pain, hardship and suffering humans have endured, all because some group wanted to force their religion upon another group.

Faith. What a rotten word.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Your basic mixed messages from today's Christianity.

Human beings, in general, are full of sin and will burn in Hell for all eternity. But God really, really loves you.

Sex is the most awful, nasty, evil, disgusting, sinful thing ever. And you should really save it until you are married to the person you love.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

"If the Earth is only 6000 years old, then why..." Question number 87.

I'll just go about these questions randomly. It's more interesting that way.

This question has two parts to its setup. The first is obviously "If the Earth is 6000 years old.." The second part of the setup is "and God is eternal and has always existed..." Now, here's the question.

Given those two suppositions by some fundamentalist Christians, then it follows that God has been sitting around for all eternity (because half of eternity is still eternity, correct? Half of eternity is behind us and the other half is always in front of us. That never changes), all by himself, in the dark (because he created light 6000 years ago, right?), all alone. And then one day, 6000 years ago, he decides to create Earth and the entire universe that goes along with it. Just out of the blue. Why then? What was God doing for the rest of that time? Planning it all? But if God is perfect and all-knowing, then He already knew everything that He must do, and He even knew when He was going to do it! So, why, out of the darkness and emptiness, in all that "waste and void", after spending eternity in that darkness, did He decide that 6000 years ago was the correct time to make Heaven and Earth?

That makes absolutely no sense to me.

Here's something I had been thinking for a while.

Of course, someone else beat me to it and said it much better than I could have. This is from Mark Morford at SFGate.

You know what God loves? Meddling. Meddling and poking and adjusting and maybe, just maybe, forgiving. Sometimes.

OK wait. What God really loves is meddling and poking and maybe forgiving, and also psychoanalyzing and scrutinizing and prying, gossiping and complaining and moderating, sighing and punishing and condemning, all while He shakes His big, shaggy head in your general direction at your various petty sins and misbehaviors every single day regarding pretty much every single thought you have.

Did you know this about God? Of course you did.

After all, if much of organized religion and nearly every conservative/fundamentalist adherent thereof are to be believed -- and they most definitely are not -- God is essentially the most obsessed, niggling micromanager of all time. He is all about being hugely, nay downright obscenely interested in the trivial minutiae of modern life, from the food eaten on a particular day to the touchdown made during the Big Game to the brand of TV you watch it on, right on over to what book you're reading and where you live and if you have the right guns and foreign policy and facial hair, and of course whether or not you judge gay people and demean women and nonbelievers in just the right way.

Because only then, when all preposterous criteria are met, might God absolve you, or lead you toward happiness, or grant success to your new laundromat, or forgive you your trespasses and your recreational drug use and your pornographic thoughts about your massage therapist, or even how many soft, cooing sounds you made over the body of a sexy Argenitine female. Isn't that right, Gov. Sanford?

Let us ponder. Because once again and for the billionth time, a deeply sad and hypocritical conservative is now claiming that he will be turning to God not merely for forgiveness for his lusty irresponsibilities, but he is also claiming that, in order to set things right, God will now be actively stepping into his life to help put him back on track, fix his mangled moral compass, tell him the what-what and the don't-stick-that-there.

Isn't that terrific? Isn't it wondrous to hear that God cares so much, so specifically, for Gov. Mark Sanford? Is it not heartening to hear that God will now happily jump into the rather wretched role of Sanford's own personal therapist, helping the wayward governor bury his heart and nix his one true love so he may return to his unhappy marriage and unhappy job and unhappy life? Yay God! So good of Him to take the time.

I, for one, am utterly delighted at how Sanford has effortlessly reduced the grand concept of timeless, universal divine metaconsciousness down to a bit of a tool, essentially making God his own personal knave. What a fantastic conceit! What glorious gall! We should all try that someday.

Exactly right.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Why Fundamentalist Christians Hate Science. (Or, “Oh, dearie me. Whatever shall we do about all these pesky dinosaurs?”)

(Cross-posted from Barking Rabbits)

Not that this question is much of a mystery. The problem with science, and all logical thought processes for that matter, for Fundamentalist Christians is that the conclusions reached undercut some of the basic tenets upon which Christian dogma depends. This has been true for thousands of years, and will continue to be true. The problem, for Christians, is this. In their view of the universe, everything related to their faith is the Absolute Truth. The Absolute Truth can never change. It can never be wrong. It is inviolable. For them, if anything within their belief system is shown to be incorrect, then that, apparently, calls into question their entire belief system!

If the Absolute Truth happens to be written down, say, in a book called The Bible, then it becomes especially difficult to reconcile when facts start intruding upon The Truth. Written words are not as easily discounted and forgotten as verbal mythology. Therefore, in order for Fundamentalist Christians to avoid complete anarchy in their belief system, every single word in the Bible must be defended to the death, even when it means trying to explain away some very inconvenient and uncomfortable facts.

I find that kind of thinking incomprehensible. But yet, this kind of thinking leads people to declare such absurdities like the following:

- Dinosaurs lived at the same time as man, and were carried by Noah on the Ark.
- Dinosaurs are probably alive today, we just don’t know where to look for them. (Yes, I agree, they are. Look in your backyard. They’re called “birds”.)
- Carnivorous dinosaurs had long, sharp, curved teeth to strip bark off of trees, because all animals, including carnivorous dinosaurs, were vegetarians prior to Adam and Eve being tossed out of the Garden of Eden.

I do not understand the Fundamentalist Christians’ obsession of late with dinosaurs. I suppose they finally came to the realization that they could not ignore the overwhelming evidence that dinosaurs once lived but are not around now. They just can’t explain away all those huge skeletons in museums around the world, so they just did their best in incorporating the past existence of dinosaurs into the belief system, intact, such that they didn’t have any pesky contradictions or loose ends regarding dinosaurs lying around.

One big problem with this approach, however, is that there are now a lot more scientific facts that would cause any rational person to doubt these assertions. For one thing, all of the geologic evidence and the fossil record show that these assertions to be complete nonsense. However, given the huge investment the Fundamentalist Christians have in defending their belief system from any and all inconvenient facts, they do what they do best; attack the messengers and say that all facts which don’t coincide with their world view are incorrect.

What the Fundamentalist Christians are doing here is just as blatant as if they were refuting the existence of dinosaur fossils. The only difference is that a big honking T. Rex skeleton staring down at you is pretty hard to ignore. The geological record is easier to ignore than the T. Rex. It involves actually understanding the subject, doing research, and coming to logical conclusions based on empirical evidence. So, rather than try to incorporate the contradictory evidence presented by the geological record into the belief system, the Fundamentalist Christians just say that scientists are wrong. Their proof? Their initial, totally unsupported postulation that, because the Bible contains only the Absolute Truth, anything that contradicts it must be incorrect. Therefore, if their initial argument is already accepted as the Absolute Truth, then the geological record must be wrong. Pretty neat trick, eh? The flip side of this approach is, anything that you say in support of the Absolute Truth automatically becomes part of the Absolute Truth.

(As an aside, I would really like a Fundamentalist Christian to try to explain Neanderthals. There is overwhelming evidence that cannot be refuted that they existed in Europe and the Middle East for thousands of years. Another fact that cannot be refuted is that Neanderthals were not humans. They were certainly related to us, but the bone structure makes it obvious that they were not us. However, it is easier for Fundamentalist Christians to ignore their existence, and instead focus on hoaxes such as the Piltdown Man, so they can say what idiots all scientists are. And who proved the Piltdown Man was a hoax? Scientists. I’m just saying.)

This entire discussion reminds me so much of how the Church reacted to Galileo’s theory that the sun did not revolve around the Earth, and therefore, the Earth was not (as the Fundamentalist Christians’ view back in the 1600’s maintained) at the center of the Universe. This was heresy in the eyes of the Church. In the eyes of the powerful Church elders, if this were true, then everything else they believed in also comes into question.

It’s funny how a few hundred years change people’s perceptions and beliefs. Back then, what Galileo was proposing threatened to undermine the entire basis of Fundamentalist Christian teachings. Now, due to the overwhelming evidence supporting Galileo’s proposal, everyone accepts the fact that the Earth indeed revolves around the sun and is, in actuality, a very small speck in the fabric of the universe. Has this new adjustment in thinking changed how the Fundamentalist Christians view the Absolute Truth? No, it has not. It has been incorporated into their paradigm. If anyone happens to dwell too deeply on why God might be so fixated on goings-on that occur on the Earth in the vastness of the cosmos, they are quickly hushed. But the entire concept now presents no insurmountable obstacles that stand in the way of the literal interpretation of the Bible.

The most ironic thing I find about the logical contortions that the Fundamentalist Christians go through is that they feel, somehow, that scientists are trying to disprove the existence of God. I have seen this in print several times. In my mind, nothing can be further from the truth. The basic reason that scientists probe the unknown is to try to figure out how the universe, and everything that it contains, works. It has nothing at all to do with the existence or non-existence of God. Why galaxies exist, what is the nature of sub-atomics particles, what killed off the dinosaurs, is there a way to predict earthquakes, all are questions being probed by science in one way or another. If a belief system desires to postulate that a Supreme Being is responsible for the existence of the universe and that all events within the universe are predetermined, the very nature of that postulation cannot be shown to be true or false by scientific evidence. It is a purely a matter of belief and is therefore not subject to scientific scrutiny.

What is open to scrutiny is when religion makes assertions about the physical nature of the universe. Science can, and does, make inquiries into the validity of these assertions. In many cases, religious assertions about the nature of the universe to not stand up to the bright light of inspection. But here is where I disagree with the Fundamentalist Christians’ conclusions. By disproving certain religious assertions about the nature of the universe, science isnot attempting to disprove the spiritual assertions of a religion. That is not the point. I would disagree with any scientist who is asserting that is what he or she is trying to do. Spiritual matters are not the purview of science. No matter my particular feeling toward organized, strictly interpreted religions in general, I will state that is should not be the business of science to try to prove something which cannot be observed or measured directly, and therefore, is outside the normal bounds of scientific inquiry.

However, Fundamentalist Christians have arrived at the opposite conclusion. In their minds, any inquiry into the nature of things that might possibly arrive at a different conclusion than what their personal belief system subscribes to is automatically taken as an attack against that religious belief system. Therefore, they must attack back, because scientists are “attacking them first”. This is, to put it politely, an immense load of cow flop. Yet, it seems to be the one and only thing that is holding the Fundamentalist Christian thought processes together. Circle the wagons, fight back, and never ask any introspective questions or entertain a moment of self-doubt during a time when your survival is under attack from a group of outsiders.

I cannot fathom this kind of thinking that actively tries to subvert, invalidate or ignore scientific inquiry. That is one thing, among many, that makes us humans. We constantly question what is the nature of the universe and how, as human beings, do we relate to that universe. I, for one, am proud to live in a time where we understand the basic structure of the universe. We have sent a space probe through the rings of Saturn and dropped probes on Titan and multiple rovers on Mars. We have concrete evidence that water, lots of water, once flowed freely on Mars. Within the next few years, we should have pictures of Pluto and its’ moon/twin planetoid Charon. We are probing the nature of matter down to the subatomic level. The universe is a wild, wonderful, amazing place that constantly surprises us. New, amazing discoveries are being made in all branches of science every day. Why should anyone consciously decide to close their eyes and ears to this, just because they feel the need to adhere to an unquestioning belief in a very old and oft-edited book whose origins are, at best, unclear?

I just do not understand willful ignorance.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Codex Sinaiticus: The Sinai Bible, the world’s oldest known complete Bible.

That’s quite exciting. From purely a historical perspective, the oldest of anything is very interesting, for no other reason than for its oldness. But there are issues with this Bible. It is different than the one we are familiar with today. Why? How could this possibly be, given that the position of all fundamentalist Christians is that the Bible is inviolate. It is the strict word of God. Every single word of it is The Ultimate Truth. This position seems to be a little at odds with fact that there are “editions” of the Bible, such as “The King James edition” or the fact that the complete Bible wasn’t really collated until 315 A.D. by Athenasius, the Bishop of Alexandria, who identified the 27 Books which we recognize today as the canon of New Testament scripture.

(Check out the links here and here for a pretty comprehensive history of how the book that we have come to know as the Holy Bible came down to us from ancient times. This, to me, does not look like the path that the inviolate Word of God would take.)

There are a number of very interesting things about the Codex Sinaiticus. From Unreasonable Faith, via Alphaville:

Discovered in a monastery in the Sinai desert in Egypt more than 160 years ago, the handwritten Codex Sinaiticus includes two books that are not part of the official New Testament and at least seven books that are not in the Old Testament.

The New Testament books are in a different order, and include numerous handwritten corrections — some made as much as 800 years after the texts were written, according to scholars who worked on the project of putting the Bible online. The changes range from the alteration of a single letter to the insertion of whole sentences.

And some familiar — very important — passages are missing, including verses dealing with the resurrection of Jesus, they said….

The Codex also includes much of the Old Testament that was adopted by early Greek-speaking Christians.

That portion includes books not found in the Hebrew Bible and regarded in the Protestant tradition as apocryphal, such as 2 Esdras, Tobit, Judith, 1 & 4 Maccabees, Wisdom and Sirach.

The New Testament portion includes the Epistle of Barnabas and The Shepherd of Hermas.

This is obvious proof that the Bible, as we now it, as been edited many, many times over it’s long and mysterious history. But I find that part about this version of the Bible missing verses dealing with the resurrection of Jesus most interesting. Isn’t that the foundation upon which modern Christianity is built? If that part of the equation is removed, what does modern Christianity even mean?

My answer is that the Bible is part ancient history, written by a people who had little or no scientific knowledge by which unusual events could be explained. It is also part mythology, handed down (at first verbally and then in text), on par with ancient Roman, Greek, Eqyptian and Norse mythologies that were sustained for many centuries before eventually dying out.

If the original Bible did not include such a cornerstone of modern Christianity like the resurrection, then the obvious conclusion is that it was added much later. I believe that conclusion is rather staggering, if any Christians would truly stop and seriously consider the ramifications of the existence of this Bible for more than a moment.

I would be willing to bet that not more than 1 in 10 people in the U.S. who profess a belief in God and Jesus even know about the existence of the Codex Sinaiticus. If I were to start a discussion about this Bible with a true believer, I feel confident that they would find a way to dismiss it out of hand. Nothing is allowed which might upset one’s beliefs. It is, after all, a “matter of faith”, isn’t it? Facts are not allowed to interfere with faith. Those are the rules as set down by the Church.

It is my firm belief that God, if He/She exists, did not mean for rational human beings to turn off the one great advantage that humans have over the rest of the animals that inhabit the world; our intellect and ability to reason and solve problems.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Did you know that Christians can’t be Democrats?

Cross-posted at Barking Rabbits.

It’s true, according to those nice people who run Jerry Falwell’s Liberty College. From Washington Monthly:

Liberty University, the evangelical school in Virginia founded by the late Rev. Jerry Falwell, is drawing heat Friday for its decision to revoke recognition of the College Democrats' chapter on campus.

According to the Lynchburg News & Advance, the school decided a week ago the organization "stood against the moral principles" held by the school and therefore could no longer be sanctioned.

Maria Childress, the staff adviser to the club, told the paper the school -- which opposes abortion rights and gay marriage -- had issues with the Democratic Party platform.

Childress says she was told by Mark Hine, the vice president of student affairs, that "'You can't be a Democrat and be a Christian and be a university representative.'"

So, after initially approving the College Democrats club, they changed their minds and revoke the club charter. But, of course, it’s not that those fine folks feel like any political activity and going to college don’t mix. No, it’s only Democratic political activity that is hostile to those values held dear by administrators of Liberty. No open mindedness here, please! No diversity of opinions necessary!

Liberty is a private institution and they can do as they please. But this does absolutely nothing except publicize the fact that it the closed minded, tribalistic institution that everyone knows it is but doesn’t really talk about. It’s just one more example of the entire “we encourage you to join us, just as long as you believe and act exactly like we do!” mentality that pervades the conservative psyche these days.

I just find it amazing that there were enough Democrats actually enrolled at Liberty to make up a club. To me, that’s a bit like being a gay Republican. You are going to have to dig deep to find some reasons for your decision that you can live with.

Photo from TBogg.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Here’s one big question I have for fervent believers: Why is your religion "the one true religion?"

And I am talking about true believers of any religion, not just Christianity. This goes for the believers of any established, organized religion.

Why do true believers always think that they are the holders of “the absolute truth?” Oh, of course, no one is ever going to come out and say they belong to a religion in which they don’t profess a belief. That is rather nonsensical. But here’s what I am talking about.

How many different societies have their been throughout the history of the human species? 10,000? 100,000? A million or more? I have no real idea. But I would guarantee that almost every single society has had some sort of belief system. There were all these unanswered questions out there, such as “where did we come from”, “who made the world” and “what happens when we die”, that are really in need of some answers. So, it seems to me that every society eventually had its own, sometimes very unique, religion to try to answer these questions.

We have the ancient Egyptians, who we so certain that their view was correct that they erected huge stone monuments that took decades to build. Do you think they were convinced they knew “the absolute truth?” How about the peoples of Easter Island, who built huge Moi statues that must have taken a huge toll on the population of the island. Why did they do that? Because they were convinced they knew “the absolute truth.” Native Americans had as many religions as there were major tribes. The Romans, the ancient Greeks, the Mayans, the Incas, the Toltecs, Pacific Islanders, the Inuit, the Druids, pre-Christian Europeans, Buddists, Taoists, not to mention all the various tribes on the African continent. Each of these societies had their belief system, many of which were so strong they built huge stone monuments that are still with us today. They were absolutely convinced they needed to do these things in order to appease their gods and to maintain the order of their respective worlds.

Viewed through the lens of today’s society, these beliefs look little more than fantasies based on superstition and were an attempt to give answers to many questions before they had the science to answer those questions. People in today’s society are so quick to brush off these ancient religions as “paganism” or “superstition.” Yet, to those ancient people, their religion was The Truth, and it dominated their lives in a way that, I think, no “modern” person can really comprehend.

Given that little setup, my question becomes, why do the true believers of today’s religions believer that they have “the answer?” To someone not versed in the basics of Christianity, to take an easy example, the stories contained in the Bible look just as fantastic and unbelievable as do the stories about the Norse gods who reside in Valhalla. Christianity had some very humble beginnings, and in no way resembles what Christianity has become now. In fact, we can’t really even define what “Christianity” is, in any detail, without including the myriad of major divisions (Catholic, Protestant, Born Again Fundamentalists) and splinter groups (both current and historical). How many Christians in the United States today would say they are a Gnostic? How many would actually even know what Gnosticism is? There’s also Monarchianism, Docetism, Donatism, Pelagianism, Nestorianism, Monophysitism, Waldenses, Lollards, Hussites and on and on. Each one of these groups was absolutely convinced that they knew “the truth” and everyone else was a heretic.

What evidence or argument is someone going to use to convince me that his or her religion represents “the truth?” Because I am going to turn this around on you and say, convince me that all these other religions are wrong. They were convinced they were correct, you are convinced you are correct.

The strength of your belief is not evidence of truth. It is evidence of your faith, but it is not evidence of truth. Those are two entirely different concepts altogether. In fact, “faith” means belief without supporting evidence. That is what Christianity of today requires of its believers; Faith. Because without faith, your belief system, including the resurrection of Jesus, the One God, except when He is Three Pieces (the Father, the Son, the Holy Ghosts, and especially the stories of the Old Testament, start to look really like a compilation of folklore, especially in light of all the scientific evidence that the world is not 6000 years old, the universe is so huge we cannot even begin to comprehend it, and that homo sapiens, regardless of how distasteful this concept might be to those who believe that humans are somehow special, evolved from lower life forms.

So, please tell me again why your one religion, out of the thousands and thousands that have ever existed in the minds of humans, is The One True Religion.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

The Atheist's Ten Commandments

Here's what I would LIKE to see everyone believe in. However, I know that it looks like some idealistic, unrealistic fantasy. One can wish, I guess.

The purpose of this blog.

I have another blog that I have been working on for almost three years now, titled Barking Rabbits. I had originally intended to use it to post some of my thoughts and questions regarding religion and why mankind seems to have an inherent need to believe in a supernatural force that is actually in control of everything. But I decided not to go that route on Barking Rabbits, due to the fact that several of my friends that I invited to contribute are what I would refer to as religious people. I don't like insulting people, or people's faith, unnecessarily. But some questions I have really can't be asked without getting into that area.

So, from time to time, I may post things here from a skeptic's point of view. I don't expect this blog to generate a lot of traffic. I just feel the need to have a place to express myself.